Elizabeth Wallace — “Liz” to her colleagues, arts contacts and friends — has worked in so many facets of the performing arts world that she has experience in just about everything her current employer presents. Which is a great thing, since Wallace is vice president of programming at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Born in Philadelphia, Wallace went to high school in Beloit, Wisconsin, then on to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she studied under Gilbert Hemsley, the celebrated Broadway and opera lighting designer. There, she found her community.
“He was like the Pied Piper,” Wallace says over lunch at the Arsht Center’s Café at Books & Books. “He died too young. At his memorial, Alvin Ailey danced. There were so many of his former students there, and they all had jobs in the business … What he gave us led us to wanting to do it ourselves … Gilbert created a community. We encouraged each other.”
Wallace had appeared onstage in a high school production of The Mouse That Roared, but she was more comfortable behind the scenes, working with a hammer and a crescent wrench. She started as a stage manager. That, she says, was like “being in the catbird seat, to see how everybody does what they do. Then you get control on opening night. It’s a place where you learn about craft.”
After studying theater management, stage management and design, Wallace moved into the world of opera. She worked at the University of Maryland for a dozen years as assistant director of the Maryland Opera Studio, helping to plan the university’s performing arts center. She became assistant director of production at the Washington National Opera.
At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Wallace served as general manager of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and as senior manager of artistic planning. She managed the orchestra through the center’s thrilling Sondheim Celebration and produced 2,000 Voices: An American Cantata at the Lincoln Memorial.
After years in major performing arts jobs, Wallace was toying with a career change (“my midlife crisis,” she says), thinking about becoming a personal chef. But then she got a call from Lawrence “Larry” Wilker, the former Kennedy Center president who was then serving as interim president and CEO of Miami’s Arsht Center.
“Larry called on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008 and said, ‘Come on down, take a look.’ I stood out on the plaza and looked at the palm trees. I saw Dr. [Sanford] Ziff in his white suit,” Wallace recalls. “Larry didn’t give me long to make a decision. I started in April.”
Wallace’s role at the Arsht has grown over time. She developed the John S. and James L. Knight Masterworks classical music series and devised the partnership between the Arsht and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She and her team oversee the commissioned 10@10 works celebrating the center’s 10th anniversary, and they program more than 300 events each year. With the departure of executive vice president Scott Shiller for his new job as president and CEO of the Denver Center, Wallace has added theater — the Broadway in Miami series, Theater Up Close — to her overflowing portfolio.
“Scott left us in really good shape,” Wallace says, “but the programming for 2016-17 has to be even more dynamic. A dip after an anniversary would be such a letdown. To define the next decade is really important. It’s time to find some new spaghetti to throw on the wall.”
While she’s happy with many of the Arsht’s programs, Wallace has a design for the future.
“Our signature series are successful, but we want them to be fresh and timely and speak to the community. We’d like to expand our educational programming and tie it to what’s being performed on our stages as much as possible,” she says.
“We want to use technology to enhance what we do and reach a community that doesn’t come to the theater. Though nothing takes the place of sitting in a live audience. And we need more space: For dance, we need a theater that has between 500 and 600 seats.”